Big-city crime? Murder rates are higher in rural Canada

Some observers of the recent RCMP shootings near Killam, Alta. have said that it was the kind of incident you would expect in a big city. But police and criminology experts suggest the countryside is no less dangerous.
Property crimes and minor assaults in Canada are more likely in urban centres, but murder rates are actually higher in rural areas. (CBC)

After the shooting of two RCMP officers on Feb. 7 near the small town of Killam, Alta., a number of local residents mused that it was the kind of incident you would expect in a big city.

There’s a widely held view that urban areas are more dangerous. But is it true?

"Is urban life more dangerous than country life? It certainly was in the 1960s and ’70s," says Michael Kempa, associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa.

He says the flight to the suburbs hollowed out city centres, leaving very few residents in downtown cores.

"The cities were like badlands in the ’60s and ’70s at night."

But in subsequent decades, many people have moved into cities. Pride of home ownership and a sense of neighbourhood responsibility have had a positive effect on the overall safety of Canada's urban areas, Kempa says.

According to a 2010 report by Statistics Canada, the murder rate is higher outside big cities, and has been for at least a decade. The study measured homicides in the country’s 34 census metropolitan areas (CMA) — urban areas with a population of 100,000 or more — and found that in 2010 the average murder rate was 1.5 per 100,000 people. For non-CMAs, which encompass rural areas, the rate was 1.9.

For the period 2000 to 2009, the murder rate in CMAs compared to non-CMAs was less dramatic — 1.81 to 1.92 — but still suggested that living in the countryside was more deadly, statistically. (It's worth noting that Canada's rates are still very low compared to those in the U.S. The 2010 murder rate in New Orleans, for example, was 49.1 per 100,000 people.)

Kempa says the differential in the urban-rural homicide rate is negligible — the incidence of major crimes like murder and sexual assault, he says, are fairly equal in cities and rural areas.

Things like property crime and minor assaults are higher in cities, but as Kempa points out, that has less to do with the urban environment than demographics.

"The highest proportion of these crimes are committed in the age bracket of 16 to 22," Kempa says. "Obviously, urban centres have many more youths in that sense, so that’s where you get your proportions."

Hidden risks in the country

Rural areas, however, have their own perils, says Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association.

"Anecdotally, I would say that on a per capita basis there’s a greater likelihood that someone in a rural area is a firearms owner than someone in a city," says Stamatakis.

In most cases, he says, the firearm is registered and has a legitimate use. Many farmers, for example, have rifles to protect themselves and their livestock from predators such as bears and coyotes.

The perils also extend to law enforcement. In the country, lower population density means more wide open spaces. But because there are fewer people, there are also fewer police officers, which means rural officers are often investigating incidents with little or no backup.

"They’re dealing with often difficult calls involving intoxicated people and domestic violence situations that they’re having to respond to on their own," says Stamatakis.

Police officers who work in small towns typically form bonds with the local people — often because they also live amongst them. This, too, can have its disadvantages. The lack of anonymity means that a disgruntled resident could easily target an officer.

"There have been many circumstances where police officers are threatened, their property is damaged, their family is threatened because they end up having a negative contact with someone in a small community and that person knows exactly where they live, they know what car they drive, they know where their kids go to school," says Stamatakis.

"Police officers have the tendency to be the kind of people that coach sports teams, that volunteer in the community. They establish some very close ties and relationships in the community," says Stamatakis.

"But sometimes when those relationships go sideways, it heightens the risk."